Second Round Team Preview: Connecticut Sun

40 minutes. 

Is Alyssa Thomas in need of a nickname? Because it might be time to start calling her, “40 minutes.” 

Even the most indispensable players in the WNBA usually receive a minute here and a couple minutes there to spell them from the grueling intensity of a playoff basketball game. Alyssa Thomas hears the word, “grueling,” and processes it as an invitation. Why would you rest an indefatigable player? 

It’s not just Thomas’s motor that stands out, of course. It’s her versatility, her adaptability, and her overwhelming talent despite not having a jump shot – basically the hundred dollar bill of modern basketball currency. 

Thomas’s Connecticut Sun defeated the Chicago Sky, 94-81, on Tuesday, setting the table for another single-elimination matchup tonight at 9 PM, a second round tilt against the Los Angeles Sparks. What came easily against Chicago will not come easily against Los Angeles. Expect Thomas to sink her teeth into the challenge. 

Thomas scored 28 points on 10-of-19 shooting in round one. She hit 8-of-9 free throws and made life miserable for poor Ruthy Hebard, a talented Sky rookie who was completely outmatched in her first playoff game. Just as importantly, Thomas snatched 13 rebounds, 10 of them coming on the offensive glass. She dished out eight assists and added a steal for good measure. 

“It’s playoff time,” said Thomas after the win. “I know I’m about to be out there for 40 minutes. I think [head coach]Curt [Miller] knows I’m a competitor, I want to win, and I know he’s not going to take me out. My job is to do whatever it is out there, whether that’s rebounding, scoring, playing defense. I just pride myself on doing everything and I think it’s my job just to get the team going.” 

Getting the Sun going was an easier task against Chicago’s 8th ranked defense than it will be against Los Angeles’s 3rd ranked defense. Final scores were nearly identical the two times these teams met in the regular season: an 81-76 Connecticut loss in the third game of the season (the Sun started 0-5) and an 80-76 Sparks win on August 28. 

Miller offered much insightful commentary as to why Connecticut has struggled against the superior Sparks in response to a question asked by Hartford Courant reporter Alexa Philippou during yesterday’s media availability. It’s not like Miller’s team is getting blown out of the water. 

“Our win percentage here in the bubble has been great when we’ve kept our turnovers low,” said Miller. “[Los Angeles is] number one in the league in generating points off of turnovers. They’re number one in the league in creating turnovers per possession. Their defense spurs their offense.” 

Connecticut turned the ball over 23 times in its second meeting versus the Sparks, including seven by point guard Jasmine Thomas. Many of these were caused by the sterling ball pressure of LA’s guard and wing rotation. Brittney Sykes is especially impactful on the defensive end and can guard a variety of players, from guards and traditional small forwards to stretch 4s. 

“They’re an overhelp team,” said Miller. “We have to handle the ball and understand that they have [a tendency to]overhelp. We have to share the ball to the backside, which means, for us, moving the ball from side-to-side and not necessarily getting stuck in one action. We’ve got to share the ball, we’ve got to handle the ball pressure, we’ve got to handle their wings that can jump through passing lanes. Handling the ball will be a big story.” 

There’s a thin line between playing with speedy decisiveness and playing chaotically. Connecticut fell into the latter trap against Los Angeles. Miller pointed to charges and illegal screens as a result of the Sparks speeding the Sun up. Against a defense as strong and deep as LA’s, it’s essential for all five Connecticut players to be moving at all times. Over-dribbling could sink the ship. 

Much is made of Connecticut’s frontcourt, and rightfully so. We’ve discussed Alyssa “40 Minutes” Thomas. DeWanna Bonner scored the third-most points in the league this season, trailing only Dallas’s Arike Ogunbowale and Las Vegas’s A’ja Wilson. Center Brionna Jones was quietly stellar for the Sun in 2020. They wouldn’t be in the second round without her. 

Yet tonight will likely come down to whether or not Connecticut’s backcourt can hang with LA’s. Briann January and Jasmine Thomas combined for 15 points on 6-of-21 shooting against Chicago. That simply will not cut it. Natisha Hiedeman played only five minutes and Essence Carson was a DNP. At least one, and likely two or three of those four must step up and make shots. Jasmine Thomas is especially important to Connecticut’s chances. The Sun often seem to go only as far as JT is able to take them. 

Connecticut snatched 17 offensive rebounds to Chicago’s five on Tuesday. The Sun will need to create more extra possessions against Los Angeles, too, if they want to reach the semifinals. Connecticut was 2nd in the league in offensive rebounding percentage this season. The Sparks were 12th. 

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Stealing extra possessions is only half the battle, however, because it’s still incredibly tough to score on Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike. I’m not breaking any news with that observation. Los Angeles allowed the second-fewest points in the paint in 2020. Getting the Sparks moving by swinging the ball to the weak side could create rebounding mismatches. Connecticut must convert the majority of its put-back and second-chance attempts.  

I’m most excited to observe what happens when Los Angeles has the ball. The Sparks devastate opponents when Chelsea Gray engages in pick-and-roll actions with Parker and Ogwumike, both of whom can shoot the three and effectively roll to the hoop. If, say, Sydney Wiese (questionable with an ankle injury) and Riquna Williams are spacing the floor around LA’s big three, these sets become nearly impossible to defend. And yet, Connecticut just might have the personnel to do it. 

Despite their shooting woes, Jasmine Thomas and January played admirable, active defense against the Sky’s lethal cadre of shooters. Alyssa Thomas is as capable as they come defending the pick-and-roll, able to switch onto guards, show and recover without ceding an opening, or simply lag back in the paint and dare the opposing ball handler to shoot over her. The Sun’s defensive rotations must be on point; allow a Los Angeles shooter to gain a half step as Connecticut attempts to close out and it’s game over. 

I’d be remiss if I concluded this preview without mentioning the fantastic play of Sun rookie Kaila Charles, who was instrumental in turning Connecticut’s season around. Known for her defensive prowess on the wings, Charles has given Curt Miller more freedom to switch without sweating the consequences. Moreover, she’s provided some shooting and scoring, going for 13 points in 18 minutes off the bench against Chicago. If Jones struggles to track Ogwumike in the pick-and-roll and Connecticut is forced to play small, Charles becomes the x-factor. If her first professional playoff action was any indication, she’s up to the challenge. 

Though Jonquel Jones isn’t present in the Wubble, this rematch of last year’s semifinal series will kindle strong feelings. Candace Parker surely has revenge on her mind after being benched by Los Angeles head coach Derek Fisher as Connecticut clinched its spot in the WNBA Finals. A motivated Parker is the last thing Miller and Co. want to see. 

Then again, it doesn’t take much for Alyssa Thomas to set her own team ablaze. If Thomas lights the fire early, Los Angeles is in for a long 40 minutes.

Buckle up. We’re about to embark on an exhilarating ride.

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